Why we shouldn't listen with Mellor

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The Independent Online
WE MUST not complain when politicians favour us with their opinions on sport. It means, at the very least, that some more vital and vulnerable part of the nation's business is receiving temporary relief from their attentions and, who knows, we may even reach the day when one of their shafts will carry enough wisdom to illuminate the darkness through which sport often gropes.

Since few of them are capable of playing anything other than their own trumpet, however, this is a faint hope. There is far more likelihood that when they speak out in tones calculated to attract gasps of admiration they do no more than compound confusions, reinforce resentments or embarrass all concerned. Into this last category was fired an outburst by David Mellor last week when he aimed at Belgium every insult he could muster on behalf of his fellow Chelsea supporters.

This is not the first time he has used Chelsea to make a stand. Like many an astute MP, he has found that an affiliation to a football team adds a "one-of-the-boys" earthiness to the public image. On this occasion, to be fair, there was justification for complaints by the innocent Chelsea supporters caught up in the ruthless anti-hooligan measures employed by the Belgian police at the European Cup-Winners' Cup quarter-final in Bruges 10 days ago. But Mellor went so far over the top in his rage that, if he is an example of the peace-loving Chelsea faction, the Belgian cops will have taken it as confirmation that they acted wisely.

To call one of our European partners a "ramshackle" country, question their right to be in the competition and say that Bruges had "a silly little football ground with a pitch that Farmer Brown wouldn't let his cows loose on" may be straying off the subject a little. In any case, no farmer would allow his cows out with Chelsea fans about.

Mellor's attack would have been more acceptable had he made it in his guise as a sports broadcaster. Since he was de-Cabineted, the former Heritage Minister has become a flourishing media-man and among his offerings is the Saturday evening sports phone-in Six-O-Six, on Radio Five. I happen to think that phone-ins are the last refuge of an idea-less station so I am not a sound witness as to his proficiency but I will say that listening to it in my car on a Saturday, I'm invariably surprised that I arrive home much earlier than it feels.

As a sports pundit, of course, Mellor joins that all-seeing, all-knowing and all-ignoreable fraternity of which I am proud to be a fellow member. Had his comments been made from our ranks they could have been dismissed as the normal lunatic ramblings. But they were made on a BBC2 programme called Westminster On-Line and Mellor was in his other role of temporarily grounded political high-flier. As such, his words carry weight, particularly as he criticised his own government for not speaking out against the high-handed approach taken by the Belgian police.

The government would not have been so daft. After the criticism of the pussyfooted way the English hooligans were handled by the Irish police in Dublin two weeks earlier, they could hardly have made the exact opposite allegation about the Bruges constabulary. As for his sneer at Belgium's footballing credentials, has Mellor compared their recent international record with England's? The jibe about Bruges looks to have had the same amount of consideration. Is he not aware that many of our greatest cup- ties have been played in silly little grounds with cow-patch pitches?

He even went so far as to say that the Heysel Stadium tragedy 10 years ago was partly caused "because the thing was badly policed and the ground was unsafe". I trust the Liverpool fans whose rampage caused the fatal crush have found it as easy to salve their consciences.

"Mounted police," said Mellor, returning to Bruges, "behaved quite outrageously towards perfectly respectable supporters."

If it wasn't for the prompt action of mounted police at Stamford Bridge recently, those perfectly respectable supporters might have been outraged in the comfort of their own stadium. Perhaps the Belgians took note of that incident. Perhaps they, too, remembered Heysel. Perhaps they took note of Dublin and of the reports in British newspapers that thousands of ticketless Chelsea fans were going to Bruges looking for trouble.

An over-reaction under those circumstances should not have been a great shock. There are many continental cities still bearing the bruises of British hooliganism over the past 20 years who wish that they had over- reacted at the time. Our complaints appear to be like blaming the demise of the Light Brigade on the Russian cannons rather than on the blundering fools who sent them in their direction.

If we can't or won't differentiate between our good and bad fans we can hardly expect other countries to do so. Their priority is the protection of their streets and their citizens and until we can guarantee that the supporters we send over are well behaved we are going to be unwelcome en bloc. We will not be wanted until the government find a way to keep troublemakers from travelling.

If we have exclusion orders why can't we have inclusion orders? Mellor's undoubted energies would be better directed towards that aim than slamming the countries we insist on invading and the Chelsea victims ought to reflect that their experience was more the fault of under-motivated British politicians than over-zealous Belgian police.

WHEN the new McLaren Formula One car was launched at the Science Museum, in London, two weeks ago it was praised as one of the most revolutionary designs in history. So revolutionary, in fact, that there's hardly any room for the driver.

They didn't find out until McLaren's new driving team of Nigel Mansell and Mika Hakkinen turned up to put the car through its paces last week. "It's like running the marathon in running shoes that are too small," Hakkinen said. Mansell remained tight-lipped.

Another triumph for sport's design engineers was last week's sinking of the £2m America's Cup challenger oneAustralia. As a machine for whipping over the waves it was brilliant. They just forgot that the first duty of a boat is to float.

Sport used to be about human endeavour under equal conditions. Now everyone looks for the edge. McLaren are now back at the drawing board. Perhaps they should start by getting Mansell measured by a Savile Row tailor - to ensure that the designers know which side he dresses.

SALIM MALIK, the Pakistan cricket captain dismissed last week in the shadow of bribery allegations, may or may not be guilty as charged. But I hope Imran Khan's reported call that he should be hanged is ignored.

I heard a story recently that makes him sound too precious a character to lose. He was tossing up before a Test match last year and, as the coin was in the air, he called out something incomprehensible to the umpires and the opposing captain.

As he stood over the coin which had landed heads up, he explained: "I called heads in Urdu. We'll bat."